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Travel industry a boon to Idaho’s economy

May 28, 2019

Tourism in Idaho is continuing to grow at a record pace, and both state and local tourism officials say that’s because the state has a lot to offer in both destinations and hospitality.

From Boise to Coeur d’Alene to Idaho Falls, there are myriad travel opportunities throughout the state, whether you want to spend your time in the great outdoors or just want to eat some good food and drink some good beer.

Let’s have a look at some of the tourism opportunities in the state and explore tourism’s economic impact.

HOW IS THE STATE DRAWING IN TOURISTS?

The Idaho Department of Commerce has seen great success with its ongoing “18 Summers” campaign, which urges parents to get outside with their kids because before they know it, their kids will be grown up and out of the house.

Matt Borud, chief marketing and innovation officer for the Department of Commerce, said the campaign continues to be successful despite running for several years.

Idaho, Borud said, has a smaller marketing budget than other states, so as long as the campaign is working, the Department of Commerce will continue to run with it.

“We’re still not at the point of saturation with this campaign, and it only continues to receive accolades, so we still feel like it’s very effective,” Borud said.

In addition to the “18 Summers” campaign, the Commerce Department recently redesigned its travel guide magazine, Visit Idaho.

“Our team did an amazing job of overhauling it this year to really turn it into a coffee table piece,” Borud said. “It is a beautiful magazine. It’s not just lists and things to do, but a lot more stories, a lot more user-generated content — photos that folks are taking throughout Idaho and posting on their social channels. (We’re) working with those people to share some of those incredible assets that they’ve captured. But it really is about inspiring travel in Idaho, telling some of these great stories, whether it’s dark skies in the central part of our state or some of the things are happening with culinary, craft beer, wine, all of that.”

You can order a free physical copy of the travel guide or read it online at bit.ly/2iAXzkJ.

Visit Idaho also recently produced a series of “Epic Idaho” videos, which feature every region in the state.

In episode 5, the hosts explore the Southeastern Region, visiting Massacre Rocks State Park, the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Pocatello’s City Creek Trail System, Caribou Jack’s Trading Co. & BBQ in Soda Springs and Bloomington Lake.

In episode 6, they visit the Eastern Region, going to Grand Teton Brewing in Victor, on a fishing trip and horseback ride in Tetonia, and visiting Mesa Falls near Ashton and Harriman State Park near Island Park.

Those videos and all the others can be found on YouTube and visitidaho.org. On the website, there are detailed itineraries that lay out how you can do all the activities explored in the videos.

Borud predicts another strong year for tourism in Idaho.

“Every year, we’re welcoming more visitors,” Borud said. “Our hotel properties, lodging properties, some of those rates are increasing a bit, so that’s good for local businesses. I think the secondary effects of travel and tourism, whether it’s transportation, businesses, restaurants, retail, shopping, certainly attractions, places to visit, things to do, those secondary impacts are massive. … We’re one of the leading states in the nation for our tourism growth on a per capita basis.”

He added, “There’s no reason to think we won’t be expecting another record number of visitors to the state.”

Because about 80 percent of travelers to Idaho come in a car, Borud is a little wary that if gas prices go up, it could affect travel into and throughout the state. Forest fires also negatively affect tourism because who wants to go visit the Teton or Sawtooth mountain ranges if they can’t see them?

As far as construction projects, Borud says the Idaho Transportation Department properly communicates any difficulties travelers may have through its 511 app.

Two of the biggest things that draw tourists here, according to Borud, is that they have a good experience and that they feel safe and secure.

In the Department of Commerce’s most recent traveler survey, 80 percent of surveyed travelers said they were very satisfied with their experience in Idaho, and 75 percent were very satisfied with the safety and security of their trip.

“You want to see something cool, you want to do something you’ve never done before, you want to raft, you want to zipline, you want to mountain bike, you want to try some of these restaurants or check out these wineries or these breweries? That’s all great,” Borud said. “But when you know folks are going to get a five-star experience, and they’re going to come away feeling fully satisfied, safe and secure, that really is the whole picture that we’re most excited about.”

JUST HOW BIG IS TOURISM IN IDAHO?

Travel and tourism is a massive industry in Idaho — the third largest behind agriculture and technology.

According to a report published by the Idaho Department of Commerce in September 2018:

Travelers spent $3.7 billion in Idaho in 2017, a 6.5 percent increase over the preceding year.

In 2017, traveler spending added $1.6 billion to the Idaho’s Gross State Product.63,000 Idahoans are directly and indirectly employed by the travel industry.Employment in the travel industry has increased by 3.1 percent per year since 2010.Employee earnings ($1.1 billion in 2017) have increased by 5.8 percent per year since 2010.Local, state and federal tax revenue generated by travel spending totaled $475 million in 2017 — equivalent to $740 for each Idaho household.

Referencing that last statistic, Borud said, “I think we often overlook positive impact that visitor spending has in reducing tax burden for Idaho residents.”

HOW IS IDAHO FALLS ATTRACTING TOURISTS?

Idaho Falls has a lot going for it, says Chip Schwarze, CEO of the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce, and the city is continuing to see a lot of tourism growth.

Here are some of the statistics he gave to the East Idaho Business Journal:

Eastern Idaho continues to see double-digit growth in hotel tax revenues.There are currently 2,300 hotel rooms available in the Idaho Falls area, with another 190 rooms in two hotels coming soon.In 2018, Bonneville County hotels reported more than $48 million in total hotel revenues, generating nearly $1 million in hotel taxes.Hotels and restaurants in Bonneville County generate more than $300 million per year.Forty-five percent of the hotel taxes came back to East Idaho to market events and travel.In 2018, the Museum of Idaho welcomed 67,263 visitors; 58 percent of those were from out of state.In 2018, the Idaho Falls Zoo had 123,856 visitors. Of those, 32 percent were from outside the region.Occupancy rates in Idaho Falls hotels were more than 50 percent as early as April 1 and were more than 65 percent early in May.The Eastern Idaho Visitor Center saw more than 22,000 guests last year — its first year of operation.

Additionally, according to information from Idaho Tourism, in 2017 tourists spent $383 million in Eastern Idaho (an official state region that includes Idaho Falls, Island Park, Rexburg and Victor — everything south of Idaho Falls including Blackfoot and Pocatello is considered the Southeastern Region), an increase of $24 million over the previous year. The tourism industry in Eastern Idaho also created 5,320 jobs in 2017.

“(Tourism is) a big deal in Idaho Falls, Pocatello, this whole region,” Schwarze said.

Schwarze said the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce frequently teams up with other organizations, including Visit Pocatello and Southeast Idaho High Country.

“We coordinate our efforts,” Schwarze said. “Eastern and Southeastern Idaho work really close to try to leverage everything we do to help our communities grow.”

Schwarze said Idaho Falls is working hard to market itself as a less expensive alternative to staying in Yellowstone National Park. (The nearest entrance to the park is about an hour and 40 minutes away.)

“The park has a finite amount of hotel rooms, and due to the law of supply and demand, those hotel rooms are expensive,” Schwarze said. “If you try to book a room anywhere from the first of June until the end of August, you’re going to pay over $300 a night.”

If people are willing to drive a bit to any of the cities in East or Southeast Idaho, they can save a lot of money on lodging, plus, Schwarze said, “There’s just so much more to do an hour and a half away from inside the park.”

Part of the chamber’s duties is to use the refunded hotel taxes to market events. It works closely with the Yellowstone-Teton Territory group and the Teton Regional Economic Coalition in Driggs, and between the three, they “probably spend three quarters of a million dollars a year marketing events in this region to bring people into town,” Schwarze said.

Schwarze predicts that tourism in the region will continue to grow.

“I think we’ll continue to grow around that 10 percent range,” Schwarze said, “but we’re in a unique position: The entire world loves Yellowstone Park.”

Schwarze said the biggest draw for tourism in Idaho Falls is Yellowstone, but he also said they have a lot of other events and attractions that draw tourists in. Some of the biggest attractions the chamber directs people to are the Snake River Greenbelt, the Museum of Idaho, the Idaho Falls Zoo, Yellowstone Bear World near Rexburg, hiking in the area, shopping and the Idaho National Laboratory (according to Schwarze, people enjoy just going out to the desert and seeing where it is).

Schwarze said the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce is trying to get more involved in local events outside the summer months.

“We’re working really hard at working with local events in what we call the shoulder season because our summers, because of the parks, are full,” Schwarze said. “Hotels are running 95 percent occupancy from the middle of May to the middle of September.”

Some of the local events the chamber has been involved with in the past are: The East Idaho Fly Tying Expo, the Museum of Idaho’s Maker Faire and the War Bonnet Rodeo, and it’s worked with the Idaho Falls Downtown Development Corp. to sponsor a beerfest and St. Patrick’s Day celebration each year.

“We have so much going on in this town, it’s just really hard to stay on top of it all,” Schwarze said.

WHAT ABOUT POCATELLO?

Birgitta Bright, the tourism administrator for Visit Pocatello, which promotes tourism in Pocatello and Chubbuck, said the travel industry in the Gate City area is continuing to grow and Visit Pocatello hopes to continue to promote that.

Within the last year, the organization has launched a new website, visitpocatello.org, complete with a travel planner, event calendar and more. Bright also said they will be launching an app soon.

Additionally, this past winter, Visit Pocatello had several journalists in the area reviewing Pebble Creek Ski Area in Inkom and Pocatello in general. Articles appeared on localfreshies.com ( here, here, here and here ), mountainmomandtots.com and Powder.com, and Pocatello was ranked 42nd in NorthWest Travel & Life’s 2019 “Top Travel Pick” awards.

“Each of those journalists were super impressed with Pebble Creek and what a remarkable hidden gem it is,” Bright said.

The journalists also liked Pocatello.

“We’ve got the university, we’ve got the ski hill. We have that ambiance of a ski mountain town and a college town but not necessarily the expense,” Bright said. “They were all impressed with the eating, the good food and the prices and the friendliness of the town.”

Bright said Pocatello is unique because it gets a lot of “non-traditional” tourists

“Any time somebody comes home to visit their mom and dad or their aunt and uncle, that’s tourism,” Bright said. “They go out to eat. They stay in a hotel. They get gas at a gas station. Any of the sporting teams that come here for tournaments, that’s tourism dollars. Anybody that travels here for an event, any conference or convention, that’s tourism. We see a lot of that.”

Additionally, Pocatello’s placement between two interstates means there are a lot of people stopping by.

“When they’re here, they look for other things to do, too,” Bright said. “They go to Old Town. They go to the Museum of Clean. They stop at the zoo and the (Idaho) Museum of Natural History. We really are seeing tourists.”

Bright said Pocatello stands out in the area because it gets tourists year-round — average tourists in the summer and ski bums in the winter.

According to Idaho Tourism, tourists spent $255 million in the Southeastern Region in 2017 and created 3,690 jobs. So far this year, tourism in Pocatello is up 11 percent over 2017, as measured by the state lodging tax.

Bright agreed with what Schwarze said in that Pocatello and Idaho Falls are not competing markets and are very collaborative, but she did say the two towns offer different vibes and perhaps different types of tourists lean toward one town or the other.

“I think we each have something a little different to offer,” Bright said. “Where we are tucked in the mountains like we are, and we have the university, we just have a little more of that eclectic, outdoor adventure type feel. We’ve got the proximity to Lava Hot Springs and Pebble Creek and stuff like that. We do kind of have a vibe going on here, I think, that is starting to resonate with people. I think we’re distinct enough that we each have specific offerings that between the two of us attract all kinds of people.”

She added, “We only cumulatively have so much lodging, so we’re both in the same situation where we want people to know about Idaho first, and then this region second.”

The biggest thing is just getting people into the region and then showing them what this part of the state has to offer.

“Once they get here, they’re going to explore. The whole state is this undiscovered gem,” Bright said. “Idaho as a whole, people have not had on their radar and they’re starting to. … We do have something really special here that other places don’t have. It’s worth the visit.”

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